Monday, August 25, 2014

A Survey of Monsters-Part Eight

Universal Monsters Live

So, I'm following three threads to get to the monster of the twenty-first century:

  1. The Horror Monster, which you might also call the supernatural monster, the monster of fantasy, or the monster from the past, represented here by the Universal monster;
  2. The Science Fiction Monster, which you might also call the scientific monster or the monster of the future, and which arose in our popular culture after World War II; and
  3. The Real-Life Monster, which includes the psychopathic killer and the totalitarian, both of which came out of the nineteenth century, and both of which thrive on mass movements and mass developments.

I believe the monster of the twenty-first century is woven from these three threads.

***

If you go by the number of movie titles released, Universal monsters weren't so popular after World War II as they were during and before. But that's only part of the picture. If you look at the whole thing, you begin to see that they continued to be popular for years afterward. After 1950, Universal Pictures made at least three smart moves in keeping its monsters alive and in the public eye.

As we all know, the world turned on the events of the Second World War. That was as true in movies and popular culture as in anything else. In the first full year after the war, The Best Years of Our Lives (1946), an extraordinary film and one as true to life as any big picture of the previous decade or more, won Best Picture at the Academy Awards. (1) More movies  treating real-life problems in more realistic ways followed. The post-war cinema was also characterized by film noir, that is, frank, realistic (though usually stylized) movies about crime, sex, terror, anxiety, and suspense, often filmed on location in the kind of city described by Fritz Leiber, Jr., in "Smoke Ghost," "The Inheritance," and "The Dreams of Albert Moreland." Interestingly, film noir had its roots in pulp fiction, in Universal monster movies of the 1930s, and before that, in German Expressionism of the Weimar period, among other things. (2) In any case, horror movies and monster movies may have declined in popularity after the war in comparison to true-to-life movies, film noir, crime dramas, and so on, but like the undead, they kept coming back.

***

In 1948, in the same year that the first Abbott and Costello-Universal monster team-up came out, CBS and ABC began regular network television broadcasts on the East Coast. They had been beaten to the punch by NBC television (1944) and Dumont (1946), but that didn't matter: there was plenty in the television business for everybody. There still is. There had been television broadcasts before. For instance, Hugo Gernsback, the father of magazine science fiction, began broadcasting television signals in New York City eighty-six years ago this month, on August 14, 1928. But TV didn't take off until after the war, when technology improved, the population (especially of children) rapidly increased, and Americans began enjoying the prosperity of the 1950s. In 1955, the last Abbott and Costello-Universal monster team-up--and the last Universal monster movie of the classic era--came out. I don't think it's any coincidence at all that in 1957, just two years later and a decade into the TV craze, Universal began syndicating its classic horror movies to American television stations as a package called Shock Theater. There was already a template for showing horror movies on the small screen. On May 1, 1954, actress Maila Nurmi (1922-2008), in her role as Vampira, became the first television horror host, on KABC-TV, Los Angeles. Soon there were horror hosts on TV stations large and small, and they all showed old monster movies and horror movies, a good deal of them from Universal Pictures.

Also in 1957, Hammer Film Productions of Great Britain released The Curse of Frankenstein starring Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee. The movie was an immediate success and the first of what would eventually be branded as "Hammer Horror." Bloodier and sexier than Universal horror, the Hammer movies had their across-the-pond counterpart in American International Pictures (AIP). Founded in 1954, AIP specialized in movies for teenagers and young adults. AIP's first monster movie was The Beast with a Million Eyes from 1955, but the company was most well known for its 1960s adaptations of stories by Edgar Allan Poe starring Vincent Price and directed by Roger Corman. Despite its reputation for making cheapies, AIP didn't always stint on the writing. Charles Beaumont, Richard Matheson, and Ray Russell were among the scenarists for the Poe-Corman series. Matheson even contributed to the screenplay adaptation of his own book, I Am Legend (1954), a movie called The Last Man on Earth (1964), which was remade in 1971 as The Omega Man. More on that later.

In 1958, owing to the howling success of Shock Theater (and perhaps also Hammer films and AIP), James Warren and Forrest J Ackerman issued Famous Monsters of Filmland, a one-shot magazine that grew into a franchise and ran for a quarter of a century. After that there was a boom of monster magazines, including Monster Parade (1958-1959), Horror Monsters (1961-1965), Mad Monsters (1961-1965), Castle of Frankenstein (1962-1975), Fantastic Monsters of the Films (1962-1963), For Monsters Only (1965-1972), and so on. (4) In 1961, Aurora Plastics Company issued Frankenstein's Monster, its first model licensed from the Universal line. There is a special place in my heart for Aurora monster models, so I will list them all:
  • Frankenstein's Monster (1961)
  • Dracula (1962)
  • The Wolf Man (1962)
  • The Mummy (1963)
  • The Creature from the Black Lagoon (1963)
  • The Phantom of the Opera (1963)
  • The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1964)
  • Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1964)
  • King Kong (1964)
  • Godzilla (1964)
  • Salem Witch (1965)
  • The Bride of Frankenstein (1965)
  • The Forgotten Prisoner of Castel-MarĂ© (1966)
Not all of those were Universal monsters of course. The Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde model was based on the Paramount picture of 1931 (I think), King Kong on the RKO Radio picture of 1933, Godzilla on the Japanese film of 1954, the Salem Witch on history and folklore, and the Forgotten Prisoner on a collaborative idea between Aurora Plastics and Famous Monsters of Filmland. Aurora also issued series of Monster Rods (monsters driving hotrods), Monster Scenes, and Monsters of the Movies, a line that included Rodan and Ghidra.

The licensing of Universal monsters didn't end with models. There were also toys, figurines, drinking glasses, ice cream spoons, and every other thing you can think of, including trading cards in the Creature Feature/You'll Die Laughing series. You might as well say there was a monster craze in the late 1950s and into the 1960s. Monster-themed shows included The Munsters (1964-1966) and The Addams Family (1964-1966), both of which had casts like an old Universal monster team-up. Those two shows were predated by The Twilight Zone (1959-1964), but that was mostly a show of science fiction and Weird Tales-like fantasy. However, it paved the way for The Outer Limits (1963-1965), a show known for its monsters. The Outer Limits in turn influenced the makers of Star Trek (1966-1969), the first broadcast episode of which, called "The Man Trap," featured  an Outer Limits-like monster, the unforgettable salt vampire. Eventually there were enough monsters of Star Trek to fill a book of that title.

So, as television took off, Universal packaged its old movies for syndication, and once those movies started reaching a new generation of viewers, the studio began licensing its monsters for other media and other merchandise. Clearly, Universal monsters were not going to go to their graves. In fact they are still with us. Like I have suggested, part of that is because of branding, advertising, marketing, promoting, selling, etc. Part of it because of the continuing appeal of the Universal characters. But part of it, too, is because of nostalgia. 

If you disregard the movies of the silent era and look only at monsters of the talkies, only a quarter century--one human generation--separated Frankenstein and Dracula (both from 1931), from the last of the Universal monster movies, Abbott and Costello Meet the Mummy (1955). If supernatural monsters or monsters of fantasy are also monsters of the past, then it seems to me that nostalgia--a sense that something from the past has been lost--would play its part in the popularity of those same monsters. (5) Supernatural monsters in the movies scare you. Afterwards, you are released from your fear, able to relax and to sleep without nightmares. Certain other monsters, monsters of science fiction as well as real-life monsters, don't allow the same kind of catharsis. Being of the present (real-life monsters) or of the future (science fiction monsters), they provoke feelings of anxiety, not of nostalgia or simple fright. There isn't any catharsis in anxiety. It goes on unrelieved.

***

Universal surely saw the writing on the wall in the early 1950s. In the previous two decades, the studio had built up a sizable body of work--a very valuable property--and they exploited it by syndicating and selling licenses for their monster movies and characters. They did more than that, though. In a canny move, they began making movies about a new kind of monster to take the place of the old. Abbott and Costello Meet the Mummy wasn't the last Universal monster movie. It was only the last of a certain type. You might have noticed that I have barely mentioned The Creature from the Black Lagoon in my discussion of Universal monsters. There is a reason for that, for the Creature doesn't really fit well with the movie monsters of the previous twenty-five years. He is after all not a supernatural monster but a monster of a new age, a monster of science. And he made his debut sixty years ago, in 1954, as the previous era was coming to its end.

Notes
(1) MacKinlay Kantor, a former pulp writer and editor, wrote the novella on which the movie was based.
(2) Theorists might like to separate film noir from fantasy genres such as horror or science fiction, but that's like comparing apples to oranges. Film noir is a form, an aesthetic, or even simply a series of techniques. Horror and science fiction are genres. They need not be exclusive. So for example, isn't Cat People (1942) film noir in its way?
(3) That was sixty years ago this year (and the same year in which Weird Tales came to an end--that's no mere coincidence), so Happy Birthday to Vampira and to television horror hosts everywhere.
(4) According to The Collector's Guide to Monster, Science Fiction and Fantasy Film Magazines by Bob Michelucci (1988), Screen Chills, from 1957, was "apparently" the world's first movie monster magazine.
(5) Supernatural monsters in literature began with Gothicism, which was an expression of nostalgia. According to Wikipedia, the word nostalgia was first applied to homesick Swiss mercenaries. Switzerland was of course the place of origin of the Gothic romance Frankenstein by Mary Shelley, of the book's title character, and of the monster himself. I don't remember now if Frankenstein's Monster ever feels homesick, but after his creation, he spends his life wandering over the world. This quote from the creature strikes me: "I am malicious because I am miserable." We have probably all felt that way in our lives, but most of us, thankfully, don't take it very far. Those who do, we may call monsters. Hitler was one of them. Eric Hoffer described the same feeling among the subjects of his book The True Believer. The True Believer, which often becomes a totalitarian monster, derives his animating idea in part from Rousseau. Like Frankenstein's Monster, Rousseau hailed from Switzerland, but that may be only the most superficial similarity between the two. If you would like to find out more, just do an Internet search on Frankenstein and Rousseau, but be prepared for some heavy academic reading.

Finally, to get all the anniversaries and birthdays in:

Happy Birthday
Vampira and Horror Hosts Everywhere (60 years)
American International Pictures (60 years)
I Am Legend by Richard Matheson (60 years)
The Last Man on Earth, starring Vincent Price (50 years)
Godzilla (60 years)
The Munsters and The Addams Family TV shows (50 years)
and
The Creature from the Black Lagoon (60 years)

Text copyright 2014 Terence E. Hanley

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